Mike Levine and his company Happy Giant are the folks behind the upcoming Sam & Max VR game, This Time It's Virtual! However, this isn't Mike's first soirée with the pair, as he worked on Hit the Road way back when we were all younger/not born.
Mike was generous enough to give up his time to answer questions about his career, his love for Sam & Max, what it was like creating a VR game for the Freelance Police, and much more. Writer Mike Stemmle even bungees in halfway through! Enjoy.
P.S. Don't miss the news about the game's release date, platforms, and to see some gameplay!
Hey, Mike! Before we get into it all, please could you tell us a bit about yourself, what you like doing in your spare time, what your first job was… it’s like we’re speed dating!
Hi, Joe! Sure, my name is Mike Levine. I live in beautiful western Massachusetts, about two hours outside of Boston, with my wife and two boys.
Outside of making games, I like doing stuff outdoors. This is something that I realized while working at LucasArts while going up to Skywalker Ranch - that if I was going to work in games and computers for my life, I wanted to be surrounded by nature to balance that out. I love gardening and fly fishing and hiking, and we love living out here.
My first job? Well, my first “real” job was really LucasArts (Lucasfilm Games at the time). Okay, in high school I worked as a busboy, so that is technically my first actual job, I think!
Your involvement with Sam & Max dates back to Hit the Road. First of all, how did you get your start at LucasArts?
I saw an ad in the paper. No, seriously. I think it might have been the one and only time they did that. Timing is everything. I had just moved to California and was looking for a job. They needed testers. Somehow they hired me. I was different than most there at the time. I was from the east coast, and brought in some different attitudes and opinions which I think they liked. Oh, and I had a pulse.
So in short, I started in QA, the infamous “Test Pit” and I still tell people to this day, QA is a great place to learn about this industry. It’s changed a lot. It’s more specialized now. But it allowed me, where everyone was so packed in tightly back then, to really soak it all in.
At the same time I was doing this, I also was learning a ton about digital video, Photoshop and more on the outside of Lucas. I had started using the Macs in the art department to practice Photoshop in my off hours. That led to people there seeing me and asking me to help on some projects. After helping lay out some Nintendo game levels, I got asked by a friend who was the art tech on Day of the Tentacle if I was interested in doing the same on Sam & Max, and that he would train me. He wanted to be an animator, and this was my opening basically. I said yes … quickly.
And how did that lead into working on Hit the Road, and what did your job on the game involve?
So as I was saying … after getting some quick training, the project ramped up and they sat me next to Steve Purcell, who I really did not know at all. I have said before, I am not quite sure why that happened. If it was just spacing, or a way for him to see all the art before I had to give it over to the programmers. I am guessing the latter.
After learning the tools, it was just kind of a steady feed of art and animations for me to deal with. I pretty much had to process every shot in the game using the SCUMM tools. That meant chopping the shots up, reducing colors, and doing other wonky things depending on the shot.
It was a long time ago, but the thing I remember most is Steve, picking on his banjo, and making me laugh so darn hard it was difficult to get work done sometimes! Somehow we did and I would walk shots on a floppy disc every morning to Mike Stemmle and Sean Clark. I can still hear Mike sipping on his coffee, grumbling something semi incomprehensible (it was early!)
While now it seems natural to consider Sam and Max as video game characters, Hit the Road was their first outing. What challenges did that present?
As I came onto the game once the design had been figured out, I was not really privy to those early meetings. Mike Stemmle could answer this better, but I do know Sam and Max were used as kind of “stand-ins” for the SCUMM engine, for new programmers to learn. So people had been playing around with the idea for a while before it became a real thing. The comics had been featured in the company newsletter, and the seeds were being sown, however inadvertently.
(Stemmle bungees in from an undisclosed location in the East Bay)
Like Other Mike said, we’d been using crudely realized versions of Sam and Max for a few years at LucasArts to help train new employees on the ins and outs of the SCUMM engine. They were great for writing dialog trees and playing wacky animations, and their office was a perfect playground for scripting basic object interactions. So we were already used to them “appearing” as digital characters.
From a story and design front, the characters mostly fit right in to the early-90’s adventure game vibe. Go to funky places, solve some problems, poke around for some stuff, tell some straining-to-be-clever jokes, and move on. Easy peasy. We cut down on the gunplay a little bit (‘cause honestly, a LOT of those puzzles could have been solved by brandishing a revolver with reckless abandon), but otherwise it’s amazing how well Sam & Max can adapt to just about any game genre, if you put your mind to it. Of course, it helps when you have the characters’ creator in the room.
Truthfully, the hardest part of adapting them was oftentimes the coding. Keeping track of Max as he wandered around the environment, making sure he always had something relevant to say, trying to keep his furshlugginer eye from disappearing when he scaled - that dang bunny is almost more trouble than he’s worth sometimes.
(Stemmle bungees out while throwing a “peace out” sign)
What do you think makes Sam & Max remain relevant all these years later?
That’s a really good question. When we began this project, I went back and reread many of the early comics, and I don’t know if it was me, or the times, or both, but I think I laughed even harder than I did 30 years ago. And I think like a good wine, their humor has aged very well. There is little like it really, straddling the line of utter silliness with geeky references and words I am constantly having to Google.
It was amusing seeing people we tested with, who had never heard of Sam & Max going in blind, and seeing them realizing it wasn’t “for kids” per se! Like as soon as they heard something like “Panopticon of Garishness” they were like “wait, what?”
Have you kept up with Sam & Max over the years? Did you watch the cartoon or play the Telltale games (including the remasters)?
I did watch several episodes of the cartoon when it aired. This was before the internet I believe and I recall taping them on my VCR. I enjoyed them but the new voices took getting used to, and it seemed a little watered down for TV to me, so I never saw them all.
The Telltale games I kept up with, but never fully played. Always too busy making games. But I am fairly caught up now. Once we dove into this project, I tried to catch up with what I had missed best I could. And we had Stemmle to set us straight on a few occasions. There are definitely references to the Telltale games in our game that fans should notice.
And now, almost two decades later, you’re back working with Sam & Max on a VR game with This Time It’s Virtual! How did that come about?
Well, for starters I always kept in touch with Steve. Whenever I saw something about Planet of the Apes or Rick Baker [make-up effects creator] or Dr. Zachary Smith [character from Lost in Space], I would send it to him. Stuff like that. Steve even designed the logo for my first company, Pileated Pictures (the character who we called Peckerhead).
So my company, HappyGiant, had done a lot with AR and some with VR and the opportunity came up where we might be able to get some funding from Oculus to make a VR Game. When I first tried the Quest1, I got excited about it. I could see the nature of “tether-less” VR was going to much more appealing for the mass market.
We debated a few original ideas, but somehow I thought about Sam & Max. I floated the idea by Steve, and he was intrigued. I think he likes trying out new platforms and ideas with Sam & Max, as do I in general. I mean, you see that over the years right? From comics, to a TV show, to a 2D game, to 3D games, toys … and now VR. Steve is not afraid to try new things. So as games and tech have changed, they have proven fairly adaptable. And it had been 10 years since a new game. Telltale was no longer around really. I thought it was a good opportunity for both of us to try something new and magically, he agreed.
Anyway, we had some phone calls, and put together a rough demo idea and concept for the game. This was before we had Stemmle and Peter Chan on board. But we did have Bay Area Sound helping, and they put us in touch with Dave Nowlin and Dave Boat, and we cobbled together a rough demo, which was needed to get our deal. Oculus liked what they saw, and we got greenlit. We still needed more funding, and that’s where HTC, and later Big Sugar came on board, to help us get it to other platforms.
The kernel of the idea for the game concept actually came from an unmade Sam & Max game by now defunct ex-Lucas Devs Infinite Machine. Freelance Police Academy was also going to be a very new foray for Sam & Max into console games, but alas it never happened. But it was a design doc I had a copy of from Justin Chin, and had held onto it all these years later. So after making sure Justin who owned Infinite Machine didn’t have a problem with it, we took that very basic idea, and ran with it. The game we made ended up having almost nothing in common with the old design though, except that nugget of them training you as a player.
VR is still a relatively new and evolving technology. How did that shape the type of game you wanted to and were able to make?
It’s still fairly Wild West days in VR. And that let us do whatever we wanted basically, which is great, but also a little scary.
First and foremost, we wanted to lean into what we thought made VR great. We wanted to make a great VR game. This is a fairly bold statement, but I think if LucasArts were to have made a VR game today, it would have come out something like this game. We made the kind of game we wanted to play. A game that was funny, fun to play, and had tons of variety of gameplay, and of course an epic story.
I really do not see any VR games like it on the market. It’s large in scope for a VR game and for Sam & Max fans, they really will be rewarded the deeper they get into it. You want to finish this game, trust me! The ending is somewhat insane. I wish we could show it off, but we are trying to keep the “mystery” as much we can for now. There is so much more to this game we have not shown off yet!
Why do you think VR is the right fit for Sam & Max, a game series that thus far has been traditional adventures?
As I said above, a lot who have worked on their games think the duo are highly adaptable to other genres. The Telltale Poker game is a good example of this. So I don’t think it’s so much about “is VR right for Sam & Max?” as is “what genres and platforms can Sam & Max not tackle?!” Like any great comedic duo, you can toss them into many situations, and they can make it hilarious. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein just popped into my head.
How have you ensured that Sam & Max’s trademark humour translates into the VR space?
In my opinion, yes and then some. Mike Stemmle really knocked it out of the park with the writing on this. There are so many references to past games and just utter hilarity. I have been listening to the jokes for months and I still laugh. Both the actors of course did amazing bringing the characters back to life. This game also has a very special first for a Sam & Max game, which we are not revealing just yet (soon!)
How did the game evolve over development?
We had a pretty solid design from the beginning, but everything always evolves when you get into it. You can design on paper until you are blue in the face but, and this is even more true for VR, until you build it, you just don’t know how fun it is. We grey boxed most levels out in advance to ensure the ideas were solid.
Can we expect to see any existing characters from the Sam & Max universe? We know we’ll be going to the pair’s office – what other memorable locations can we expect to experience first-person?
Well I don’t want to give it all away, as part of the fun will be for fans going “hey, that’s from the BLANK scene from XYZ”, but there is a fair share. We have shown Fizzball a little. A lot in this game was inspired straight from the comics. We have one level that’s loosely based on Beast in the Cereal Aisle for example.
You’ve gone with David Nowlin and Dave Boat as Sam and Max respectively, both of whom voiced the pair for Telltale. Why did you want them in particular?
Well, they are both amazing first and foremost. They really embody the characters. They were the last ones to play them, and it seemed cool to keep that “continuum” going. Plus they helped us out with our demo. This was a team effort.
How involved has Steve Purcell been on the game? What has his feedback been?
As I mentioned earlier, at the beginning we had several calls with Steve, Peter, Mike and myself. We hashed out the game and levels with him, and I have kept him pretty in the loop. He is very busy working at Pixar, but we have spoken regularly in his off hours and I show him videos and he makes comments.
He has had a lot of input on this, some small, some big. I mean if he asks for something, I am gonna do my best to get it in the game. Steve is the ultimate authority here and I tried to maximize his time as best I could. Also, Peter does a great job channeling his visual style, knowing Steve well and having worked on Hit the Road.
There’s going to be Sam & Max fans who won’t be able to play this because they don’t have VR. Do you have any plans to satiate their appetite?
Right now we are very committed to the VR game being a success. After that, no options are off the table. We are also looking at other ways fans can support this game potentially. Many have said they will get a VR headset for this game, and that is wonderful. Watching VR on a flat video screen really just doesn’t do it justice. You have to experience it. It’s hard to overstate this.
This Time It’s Virtual! isn’t out yet, but I’m greedy. Will you do more with Sam & Max? Other games, merchandise, anything like that?
Everything hinges on this game being a success. If it is, the future is bright! Anything is possible. As I said above, we are looking at a few ideas outside of the game as well.
Thanks so much for your time, Mike. Any closing words for those Sam & Max obsessives out there?
We are extremely grateful and acutely aware of how big an opportunity this game is for HappyGiant, and for Sam & Max. We do not take this lightly. For ourselves, or for the fans. While VR is a new platform, we feel we have captured their essence, and that Sam & Max fans will love it, and we hope they support it. If this game is a success, it will open up many new possibilities for them.
Thanks for taking the time to read this and for all the great questions!